Kuusisto, Stephen 1955-
KUUSISTO, Stephen 1955-
Born 1955, in Exeter, NH. Education: Hobart College, B.A. (cum laude), 1977; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1980.
Hobart College, Geneva, NY, adjunct assistant professor and assistant dean, 1985-93; Guiding Eyes for the Blind, director of student services, 1995-2000; Ohio State University, Columbus, assistant professor.
Fellowship, Fulbright Foundation, 1982; fellowship, Blue Mountain Center for the Arts, 1991, 1993, 1997, 1998; Distinguished Teaching Award, Hobart & William Smith Colleges, 1992; fellowship, MacDowell Colony, 1993, 1995, 1997; fellowship, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, 1995; fellowship, Villa Montalvo Center for the Arts, 1995; Books for a Better Life Award, Multiple Sclerosis Society of America, 1999; poetry fellowship, Ohio Arts Council, 2002.
(Editor, with Deborah Tall and David Weiss) Taking Note: From Poets' Notebooks, Hobart and William Smith Colleges Press (Geneva, NY), 1991.
(Editor, with Deborah Tall and David Weiss) The Poet's Notebook: Excerpts from the Notebooks of Contemporary American Poets, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 1995.
Planet of the Blind (memoir), Dial Press (New York, NY), 1998.
Only Bread, Only Light: Poems, Copper Canyon Press (Port Townsend, WA), 2000.
Seneca Review, contributing editor; contributor to periodicals and literary journals, including Harper's, Poetry, Partisan Review, and New York Times (magazine).
Stephen Kuusisto and his twin brother were born three months premature, and his brother did not survive. Kuusisto was placed in an incubator where, as was often the case at the time, he was overly oxygenated. He developed retinopathy (scarred retinas), nystagmus (darting eyes), and strabismus (crossed eyes) as a result. His parents enrolled him in public school, rather than in a school structured to accommodate his disability. As Deirdre Donahue noted in USA Today, "his parents' inability to accept that their son really couldn't see was both a blessing and a curse. His father, the president of two colleges in upstate New York, simply never spoke about his son's disability. His mother kept him out of special schools because she didn't want him in a place where they 'teach kids how to cane chairs.' She did not want her son to be stigmatized and offered a life of limited options and sheltered workshops."
Planet of the Blind is Kuusisto's memoir, written with the help of speech synthesizing software, in which he begins with his childhood and ends with his partnership with his seeing-eye dog, Corky. Guardian reviewer Ian Sansom said that "every page of this extraordinary book is worth refingering and rereading. It's as if the whole thing has been rubbed with gold dust: the prose has a richness not often found in poetry, let alone in memoirs by first-time writers, let alone in memoirs by first-time writers who happen to be blind." Kuusisto writes that he pretended he could see and engaged in the activities of sighted boys, including riding his bicycle. Andrew Rosenheim commented in the Times Literary Supplement that "the real power of his book lies in its opening sections, where his victimization by school peers (countless thefts of his glasses included) and his persistent efforts to seem normal are heartbreakingly recounted." Kuusisto was able to see only slightly out of one eye, and in order to read, he held printed materials inches from his face. His teachers recognized his inability to see and helped him as much as they could, but the young boy suffered physical pain and fatigue as he tried to keep up with his classmates. He writes that "in school, the printed word scurries away from my one 'reading eye'—words in fact seem to me like insects released from a box."
Washington Post Book World critic Georgia Jones-Davis commented that "Kuusisto, a poet, relies on such images to convey his 'speck of something like seeing.' The strange brilliance of this book lies in a nearly sightless man's ability to make us see what his world is like: how a car in motion or a girl walking by becomes a wavering splash of color, surrounded by a nimbus. He navigates through this world of fibrillating shapes using memory as his radar. In new surroundings he is practically helpless yet manages to hoodwink those he associates with into thinking he can see something. He goes bird-watching with a friend and lies about the beauty of the creatures. In fact, he's never seen a bird."
Kuusisto studied English and literary theory and graduated college with honors. He taught and was a translator of Finnish poetry and learned to ski. Los AngelesTimes reviewer Jonathan Levi wrote that when Kuusisto "writes of his appreciation of the paintings of Jackson Pollock or of his waking nightmares, where Evelyn Wood, the sultana of speed reading, appears before him in a turban, promising sugarplums of Proust at sixty pages per minute, Kuusisto shows flashes of true voice and spirit." His frustration with his limitations exacted a toll, however. Before he took control of his life, he overate, then became anorexic and depressed.
At the end of his memoir, Kuusisto writes of the impact made on his life when he decided to acquire his guide dog, Corky, which became necessary when the author was nearly forty. Rosenheim noted that "the final pages of Planet of the Blind describe the difficult early stages of their life together. Even if you don't like dogs, it's enough to make you weep, and make you think. If Kuusisto learns one thing from Corky, it's that just as seeing has to be learned, so too does blindness." Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times that Kuusisto "is a powerful writer with a musical ear for language and a gift for emotional candor. He has written a book that makes the reader understand the terrifying experience of blindness and that stands on its own as the lyrical memoir of a poet."
Kuusisto followed his memoir with a collection of poems titled Only Bread, Only Light. Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman wrote that his meditations "remind readers that vision takes many forms, and that feelings of being lost and alone are intrinsic to human nature." Library Journal contributor Graham Christian noted that Kuusisto's "lyricism and humor are so exhuberant and strong that they explain our world as well as they explain his."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Kuusisto, Stephen, Planet of the Blind, Dial Books (New York, NY), 1998.
Bloomsbury Review, September-October, 1996, Jamie Miller, review of The Poet's Notebook: Excerpts from the Notebooks of Contemporary American Poets, p. 11.
Booklist, November 15, 1997, Donna Seaman, review of Planet of the Blind, p. 527; September 15, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of Only Bread, Only Light: Poems, p. 205.
Guardian (Manchester, England), February 5, 1998, Ian Sansom, review of Planet of the Blind, p. T12.
Harper's, August, 1996, excerpt from Planet of the Blind, p. 27.
Library Journal, November 15, 1997, Ximena Chrisagis, review of Planet of the Blind, p. 62; December, 2000, Graham Christian, review of Only Bread, Only Light, p. 145.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 26, 1998, Jonathan Levi, review of Planet of the Blind, p. 4.
New Yorker, February 2, 1998, review of Planet of the Blind, p. 78.
New York Times, December 23, 1997, Michiko Kakutani, review of Planet of the Blind, p. E6.
New York Times Book Review, February 15, 1998, Bruce Weber, review of Planet of the Blind, p. 24.
Publishers Weekly, October 20, 1997, review of Planet of the Blind, p. 59.
School Library Journal, May, 1998, Pat Bangs, review of Planet of the Blind, p. 177.
Spectator (London, England), February 28, 1998, Sargy Mann, review of Planet of the Blind, p. 27.
Times Literary Supplement, January 22, 1999, Andrew Rosenheim, review of Planet of the Blind, p. 30.
USA Today, February 23, 1998, Deirdre Donahue, review of Planet of the Blind, p. D9.
Washington Post Book World, March 29, 1998, Georgia Jones-Davis, review of Planet of the Blind, p. 4.
[Sketch reviewed by author's wife, Connie Kuusisto.]